Jane Austen’s House Museum are commemorating the 200th anniversary of the author’s death by commissioning a stone letter-cut memorial from the artist Pip Hall to be sited in the house garden. The memorial is in the tradition of the plaque on the front of the house which was commissioned to mark the 100th anniversary of Austen’s death and has recently been restored.
Following a call to the public to suggest a favourite Jane Austen quotation for the memorial, the Museum received suggestions from a wide-ranging community of Austen readers and supporters and has now selected the text (below). The Museum took into account the scale and balance of the artwork and its siting in the garden, the literary importance of the letter from which it comes and the fact that the letter is part of the Museum’s collection. Above all, the text embodies the author’s tongue-in-cheek wit, while making clear her own professionalism as a writer.
"I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter."
The full letter is addressed to the Reverend James Stanier Clarke and dated 1 April 1816 [138D in Jane Austen’s Letters, 4th edition, collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye]. Stanier Clarke was the Prince Regent’s librarian and following some correspondence about the dedication to His Royal Highness in Emma, he went on to propose subjects for her next book, such as a royal romance.
The quotation was suggested by two people, Susannah O'Brien of Southampton and Janet Stow of Toddington.
Susannah writes: "I greatly admire Jane Austen's wit, deftness of touch and sheer skill with words. I only recently acquired Deirdre's Le Faye's collection of J.A.'s letters and find them extremely revealing of her own personality and her gift for astute, perceptive descriptions of her acquaintances. What an engaging companion she must have been!”
Janet explains "I met Jane Austen in my early teens, galloped through all six books and then re-read them more slowly and carefully, loved them all, especially Emma, my all time favourite. I still have the Collins pseudo leather copies of the 50's, bought with my carefully saved pocket money and also paper backs which have travelled on holiday, in and out of hospital and been lent out to readers possibly less careful than me."
Pip Hall's design is a beautiful social seating space placing the quotation over two Purbeck Thornback benches in the flower border.
Pip says: "I am delighted that my design has been chosen to commemorate Jane Austen's bicentenary. I remember the impact, aged 16, when I first opened Pride & Prejudice and began to read: I was entranced by her language and felt a new world unfolding. I have loved reading and rereading her novels ever since; they are such good old friends. It was a remarkable thing 200 years ago for a woman to make writing the centre of her life. Jane Austen's example is still inspiring today, so to be carving her words in stone for the Museum will be a particular personal pleasure and a great privilege."
Photo credit: Joe Low for Jane Austen's House Museum